Post #1093: Decision-making in the Town of Vienna

Posted on April 3, 2021


I got a question the other day about why I’m still worried about Patrick Henry Library (Post #1068).  When all the people “in the know” say not to worry, everything will be just fine. 

Particularly because Fairfax County is going to design it, not the Town of Vienna.  And, duly noted, Fairfax wins awards for the architectural elegance of its designs.

Source:  Fairfax County Public Library website.

I get that.  I said that in that post.

And, sure, nothing has been settled yet, and Fairfax County needs to be involved, and fill-in-further-soothing-words. But near as I can tell, at present, this is the one and only plan for the new Patrick Henry Parking Garage (and library).

(And, to be fair to Fairfax County, a) Fairfax determined that the existing library is outdated and must be replaced but b) this is our design, not theirs. This was developed by architects hired by the Town of Vienna, to ensure that this met the desire for parking. Fairfax County, by contrast, has a long-standing history of producing libraries that are award-winning pieces of architecture. But that’s going to be tough to do if the library is an afterthought on a parking garage.)

But if you follow decision-making in the Town of Vienna for any length of time, you will see a lot of strange stuff happen.  Near as I  can tell, a lot of truly important decisions just kind of wander around until they stop.  They often get made well before anybody had (e.g.) gathered the facts, done a needs assessment, or similar.  And often times, assurances by the apparent leaders of the Town government, said in plain and unambiguous language, just turn out to be dead wrong.

So I’m going to walk through one of those episodes.  As a way to explain why I’m not going to feel better about our Library until I see Fairfax produce the design.  With the idea being that it sure would be great if we could get a library that’s as nice as the one down the road in Oakton.  But that’s probably not going to happen with the library being joined to a large concrete parking garage.

“What a lovely parking garage” is just not a phrase you hear very often.

So, let me now talk about the history of the current rewrite of all the zoning in Vienna.  As I experienced it, sitting in the audience in many, many Town Council meetings.  No inside information, just the view of somebody who paid close attention and took notes.  Just as an example of how things sometimes go down in the Town.

In the 1/7/2019 Vienna Town Council meeting, when the Town first started talking about rewriting the zoning code, it was sold to the public as a much-needed “clean-up” of the zoning rules.  And absolutely nothing more.  The Mayor at that time explicitly promised, multiple times, in public meetings, that there would be no changes to the actual content of the zoning rules.  Here’s my writeup of discussion at the the 1/7/2019 Town Council meeting, taken from this post, emphasis mine:

Despite the fact that we are “selling it” to Fairfax Count as an economic development measure, the Mayor flatly said “We are not changing any of our zoning.” Again, “Our intent is not to change anything.” So that Mayor characterized this as a purely technical “clean up” of an existing set of somewhat messy regulations.

(To be clear, that’s the former Mayor, not the current Mayor.)

At the 12/9/2019 Town Council meeting, when this zoning rewrite scope-of-work was funded (as, of course, the last item on the agenda, which is another thing to keep an eye out for, because that’s where the important and controversial stuff tends to get put), the public description of it still sounded completely innocuous.  If you had been an interested citizen at that time, and had bothered to read the town staff’s description of this, here’s what you would have seen:

"The goal of this proposed project is to reorganize the subdivision and zoning ordinances so that regulations are logically organized and easy to understand through use of plain language, charts, tables, and illustrations. In addition, the subdivision and zoning ordinances should be updated so they are in compliance with state statutes and recent Supreme Court decisions with regard to sign regulations. The updated ordinance should be consistent with the Town’s Comprehensive Plan and address areas where the Code has been silent and zoning determinations have been made over the years by the Town’s zoning administrators or where regulations are currently lacking, e.g., parking requirements for all uses."

That’s all flat-footed, plain-vanilla stuff, right?  Comply with the law, tweak the parking standards, and so on.  Make stuff logical and easy to read.  Clean up a lot of old “determinations”, which are one-off rulings by past directors of Planning and Zoning.

Motherhood and apple pie.

The only problem was, the actual document that the Town was voting on had not been posted with the meeting materials.  (Which is another thing to keep an eye on.)  In fact, I couldn’t find it on the Town’s website, period.

(It was only after I bitched, here, on this blog, about the lack of that document being posted, that a Town Council member pointed me to the only publicly-available copy of a prior draft of the actual scope of work.  This was an earlier draft of that, published at an earlier Town Council work session, and had not been posted with the meeting materials for that Town Council meeting where they were voting on it.)

Only by scrounging for and reading (an earlier draft of ) the actual thing being voted on could you find out the truth.  (See Post #481).  And the truth is that the Town was voting on a staff-written scope of work that explicitly granted the staff the right to change virtually every aspect of Town of Vienna zoning. (Subject, of course, to the Town Council voting it into law.)

If you really want some perspective on where this has gone, read my writeup of Former Councilmember Majdi’s comments at that meeting, in this posting.  He could read the writing on the wall, and he took the unusual step of having some technical material entered into the record for that meeting.

In the end, I think Councilman Majdi nailed it.  He said pretty much what I was thinking, and, unusual for a guy who is unfailingly polite in the public eye,  he said it in a way that might have ruffled some feathers.   His point was that no matter what they said, somehow, he’d bet that the end result of this is higher density development in the Town of Vienna. And people who live here really don’t want that.  In the meeting, he bet two years’ of his Town Council salary (about $10K), that, when the dust has settled, one way or the other, this re-writing of the law will lead to more higher-density housing in Vienna.

Councilman Majdi was so adamant about Vienna residents not wanting higher density that he did something I have not seen before in a Town Council meeting:  He had a commercial publication entered into the public record.  As it turns out, when national urban planners talk about how high-end residential communities vehemently reject growth, they use well-to-do Northern Virginia towns as their poster children.  And I have to say, it is sort of striking that national reference books on this topic point to a handful of little communities here in NoVA when they talk about towns that rejected high-density growth.

And so, that’s how we got here.  MAC zoning was rescinded, and what was sold to the public as an innocuous technical redo of the zoning, with explicit promises from the (then) Mayor that nothing about the zoning would change, morphed into Son-of-MAC zoning.  It’s now the vehicle by which the Town is going to pave the way for further medium-density housing (“mixed use”) on Maple Avenue.  Among other changes.

As with all good bureaucracies, there was probably nothing outright actionable in the misleading description above.  Arguably, that phrase “be consistent with the Town’s Comprehensive Plan” could, depending on exactly how you interpret the punctuation (or lack thereof) in that sentence, be taken as carte blanche to revise all the zoning in Vienna.  Which is, in the end, what this has become.

(After, of course, they revise the Comprehensive Plan, which was something that we were told earlier, by yet another Town official, absolutely could not be done until the 2020 Census data came out.  And yet, it’s now under revision, with no 2020 Census data yet.)

With that as an example of how the Town makes decisions, yeah, thanks, I’ll remain worried about the library.  No matter how many people want to say that everybody knows that’s an awful design (in which case, why did the Town pay for it?), and everybody knows that what Fairfax County does with our parking-garage-cum-library will be beautiful, eh, I really want to see the final product before I’ll take anybody’s word for it.

Source: Fairfax County Public Library website.